Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014
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10 Best Public Colleges With Lowest Debt at Graduation, 2014

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As the cost of a college education continues to rise, the amount students borrow to cover those costs has crept up as well. From 2008 to 2012, debt at graduation (including both federal and private loans) increased an average of 6% a year, according to the Project on Student Debt. More than 70% of the class of 2012 borrowed to help pay for their education, at an average of $29,400 per borrower.

The good news? These ten schools from our 2014 list of best values in public colleges offer academic quality as well as enough financial support to get students to graduation day with a manageable amount of student debt. At five of the schools on our list, students earn their diploma with an average debt of $17,000 or less. Take a look.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 2 of 11

1. University of North Georgia

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Average debt at graduation: $12,166

Kiplinger's ranking: #94

Undergrad enrollment: 5,851

Annual in-state cost: $14,554

Students who borrow: 57%

The University of North Georgia has some of the lowest sticker prices (for both in-state and out-of-state students) on our list. The below-average cost of attendance, paired with generous financial aid (including the HOPE scholarship, available to in-state students who qualify based on academics) reduces the need for students to borrow. Also, students here graduate with an average debt that's about 60% less than the national average -- and the lowest amount on our list.

The school was formed in January 2013, when North Georgia College & State University (which appeared on our list three times over the past four years) and Gainesville State College merged. Now, with four campuses north of Atlanta, the school has more than 50 bachelor’s degree programs in five colleges.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 3 of 11

2. SUNY Oneonta

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Average debt at graduation: $15,373

Kiplinger's ranking: #74

Undergrad enrollment: 5,863

Annual in-state cost: $19,486

Students who borrow: 66%

Located halfway between Albany and Binghamton, New York, SUNY Oneonta’s 250-acre campus overlooks the idyllic Susquehanna River Valley and the small city of Oneonta. While two-thirds of students take out loans, the average amount that each student borrows is about half the national average. Each year, the school awards more than $2 million in scholarships based on academic achievement, including awards to about 30% of the freshman class. The average need-based aid award, $4,709, reduces the in-state tuition to $14,777.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 4 of 11

3. SUNY Buffalo

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Average debt at graduation: $16,025

Kiplinger's ranking: #51

Undergrad enrollment: 19,505

Annual in-state cost: $21,447

Students who borrow: 45%

As the largest residential school in SUNY’s 64-campus system, the University at Buffalo offers more than 100 undergraduate degree programs. The average need-based aid award of $5,140 reduces the cost to $16,307 for in-state students. The school's “Finish in 4” program focuses on helping students graduate on time and avoid the expense of an additional year. Incoming freshmen work with an adviser to craft a four-year plan and pledge to fulfill a list of obligations -- including limiting work to less than 20 hours per week and completing tasks such as course registration and financial aid forms on time. If a student meets these commitments but still doesn’t graduate in four years, UB will waive tuition and fees for any remaining coursework.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 5 of 11

4. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Average debt at graduation: $16,983

Kiplinger's ranking: #1

Undergrad enrollment: 18,503

Annual in-state cost: $19,676

Students who borrow: 35%

UNC has topped our best-values list 13 consecutive times. Stellar academics, including a 28% admission rate (the third-most competitive on our list), a high freshman retention rate (97%) and the third-highest four-year graduation rate on our list (77% of students graduate in four years) contribute to UNC’s top ranking, as does its generous financial aid, which keeps student borrowing to a minimum.

The school meets 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need, the only one on our list to do so. The average need-based aid award of $13,222 reduces in-state cost to an average of $6,454. UNC also ranks as the best value for out-of-state students, with an average cost of $28,336 after need-based aid. Compared with last year, a smaller percentage of UNC students are taking out loans -- and among those who do, the average debt has gone down by almost $500.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 6 of 11

5. University of North Florida

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Average debt at graduation: $17,000

Kiplinger's ranking: #64

Undergrad enrollment: 14,398

Annual in-state cost: $16,718

Students who borrow: 42%

About 20 miles east of downtown Jacksonville, Fla., the University of North Florida, which opened in 1972, meets 90% of a student’s demonstrated financial need -- one of the highest percentages on our list. Need-based aid averaging $5,370 and an expansive list of merit and need-based scholarships, from $1,000 one-time awards to four-year full rides, help keep student indebtedness well below the national average.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 7 of 11

6. University of Texas at Dallas

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Average debt at graduation: $17,516

Kiplinger's ranking: #39

Undergrad enrollment: 12,029

Annual in-state cost: $22,246

Students who borrow: 36%

As colleges continue to look for ways to ease the pressure of rising tuition, the University of Texas at Dallas has already made a promise to its students. The school, which is located just north of downtown Dallas, offers students the Guaranteed Tuition Plan, which locks in tuition and required fees for four years. In-state students can take courses beyond the usual 15 credit hours at no additional cost.

Enrollment and graduation rates are both on the rise at UT Dallas. Just over half of applicants are accepted – and about 40% of accepted students ultimately enroll. The school offers 133 academic programs and more than 200 clubs and student organizations.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 8 of 11

7. San Diego State University

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Average debt at graduation: $17,600

Kiplinger's ranking: #76

Undergrad enrollment: 26,624

Annual in-state cost: $22,324

Students who borrow: 44%

Located two hours south of Los Angeles and just a short drive from downtown San Diego, the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, San Diego State University is one of the largest universities in the state. SDSU helps keep student borrowing to a minimum with scholarships, including many awards for specific areas of study, and an average financial aid award of $10,100. Beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, California residents with family income up to $150,000 may quality for the Middle Class Scholarship. This currently modest award will increase as the program is phased in over the next four years.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 9 of 11

8. University of North Carolina at Asheville

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Average debt at graduation: $17,696

Kiplinger's ranking: #58

Undergrad enrollment: 3,693

Annual in-state cost: $15,047

Students who borrow: 58%

UNC Asheville’s 265-acre campus, located about a mile from downtown Asheville, is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The school’s in-state sticker price is one of the lowest on our top 100 list, and more than 60% of students receive financial aid. The average need-based aid award, $6,096, reduces in-state costs to $8,951. The school also keeps student borrowing to a minimum with a variety of merit scholarships and grants, including the Laurels scholarships, offered to freshmen with strong academic records. These awards top out at the full cost of attendance, and most are renewable as long as the student continues to meet the requirements.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 10 of 11

9. University of California, Berkeley

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Average debt at graduation: $17,964

Kiplinger's ranking: #9

Undergrad enrollment: 25,774

Annual in-state cost: $29,280

Students who borrow: 40%

Although it has the third-highest sticker price on our top 100 list, the University of California’s flagship campus gets students to the finish line with about one-third less debt than the national average, thanks to a strong four-year grad rate (71%) and generous financial aid. UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan helps cover tuition and fees for in-state students with financial need and annual family income below $80,000.

In addition to the Middle Class Scholarship Program, an income-based program offered by the state, the school also has the Middle Class Access Plan. That program caps parent contributions at 15% of income for students of families who earn between $80,000 and $140,000. All told, about two-thirds of UC Berkeley students receive some form of financial aid. The average need-based aid award-- $16,629-- reduces in-state tuition to $12,651.

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Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation 2014 | Slide 11 of 11

10. New College of Florida

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Average debt at graduation: $18,276

Kiplinger's ranking: #11

Undergrad enrollment: 832

Annual in-state cost: $16,867

Students who borrow: 39%

Located in Sarasota, along the Gulf of Mexico, New College’s 110-acre main campus sits on the former estate of circus owner Charles Ringling. It originated as a private institution but joined the state university system in 1975. The school offers financial aid to 90% of students -- and the average need-based aid award of $8,819 drops the average cost of attendance for in-state students to $8,048. Less than 40% of undergraduates take out loans -- among the lowest percentage of student borrowers on our top 100 list.

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